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Fifty years of ACOSS

By Philip Mendes - posted Thursday, 28 December 2006

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the peak lobby group of the community welfare sector, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. ACOSS was originally formed in 1956 as a peak co-ordinating body of welfare service providers. However, over time, ACOSS shifted its emphasis from representing the specific interests of its member organisations to advocating for the broad interests of low income and disadvantaged Australians.

Consequently, ACOSS devotes most of its resources to promoting the elimination of poverty and the establishment of a fairer and more equitable society which will enhance the life opportunities and living standards of low income earners. It also supports the role of community welfare organisations both in terms of their provision of services to disadvantaged Australians, and their contribution to national policy debates.

Structurally, ACOSS is made up of almost 70 membership organisations including the eight Councils of Social Service in each of the states and territories; national peak organisations of both consumers and service providers; national religious and secular welfare agencies; key professional associations and peak bodies which specialise in particular policy areas or population groups; and low-income consumer groups. ACOSS also has over 400 associate members consisting of individuals and state or locally-based organisations.


ACOSS is largely an organisation of middle-class welfare professionals which acts on behalf of low income people. Most of its key leaders have held prominent paid or voluntary roles in large community welfare organisations and or been active in the State and Territory Councils of Social Service.

ACOSS’ claim as a professional advocacy body to represent the interests of low income and disadvantaged Australians has frequently been questioned by governments, and sometimes by the poor themselves. One reason for this is that ACOSS has often struggled to satisfactorily involve consumer groups in its policy development and decision-making. Nevertheless, ACOSS today has managed to ensure formal representation for the major existing low income consumer groups within its organisational structure.

Ideologically, ACOSS can be broadly described as a social justice organisation which emphasises tackling the structural causes of poverty and inequality. Both secular social democratic ideology and Christian social teachings have exerted a significant influence on ACOSS’ political position in favour of a broad redistribution of income from the rich to the poor.

To be sure, ACOSS has a highly diverse membership ranging philosophically from consumer groups representing single mothers and people living with HIV-AIDS to traditional Christian charities. Nevertheless, ACOSS remains united in its support for a publicly funded welfare safety net complemented by a progressive taxation system.

ACOSS has experienced ideological attacks from both the political Left and Right. Some on the Left have criticised ACOSS for allegedly keeping its arguments within the framework of the dominant economic rationalist discourse. They would prefer ACOSS to present more radical views both in its arguments and lobbying strategies, and to present an alternative structuralist agenda.

These criticisms arguably have some legitimacy in that ACOSS has often narrowed its critique to the government’s specific priorities, rather than presenting an alternative paradigm. However, ACOSS pragmatically believes that it has to engage with all governments, whatever their ideological position, in order to influence their policies in a more progressive direction.


More politically influential in recent decades has been the neo-liberal critique of the welfare lobby based on public choice theory. This critique holds that advocacy groups such as ACOSS represent self-interested professionals concerned with building well-paid careers rather than with genuinely assisting the poor. However, this critique seems to be misinformed given that ACOSS’ lobbying activities focus on promoting higher incomes and opportunities for welfare consumers, rather than grabbing more resources for welfare organisations and programs.

Overall, the public choice critique of ACOSS appears more concerned with specifically delegitimising the agendas of those groups that seek increased government spending, than with genuinely reducing the privileges of self-interested lobby groups.

ACOSS describes itself as a non-party political organisation committed to dialogue with all political parties. This means that it does not seek a formal alliance with any particular government or political party which may lead to a diminution of its own political choices. Rather, it aims to influence all parties to develop policies which benefit people affected by poverty and inequality.

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This is an edited extract from his new book Inside the Welfare Lobby: A History of ACOSS published by Sussex Academic Press. The book was discussed by a panel of current and former ACOSS Presidents at the 50th Anniversary ACOSS Congress in Sydney on November 24, 2006.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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